Whenever a couple gets divorced, the first question their friends and extended family wonder about is, what about the kids?
We know the way parents handle things can make a huge difference. What we don't often think about is how the kids themselves help each other or not, notes divorce psychologist Judith Wallerstein. Sometimes, her research indicates, they become like parents to younger siblings; for some, their brothers and sisters are their only friends. Often, she says, their favorite childhood memories are of "their close relationships with their siblings, which they credit with sustaining them over the post divorce years."
That won't be the experience of Harlow Jane, however, the 8-year-old daughter of actors Patricia Arquette and Thomas Jane who, after going back and forth on whether to divorce or not, decided this month to split. Nor will it be the experience of Coco Arquette, the 7-year-old daughter of actors Courteney Cox and David Arquette, who are reportedly divorcing after a very public separation announcement late last year. And it probably won't be the experience of many kids in years ahead -- the number of families with "only" children has nearly doubled since the 1960s, according to the National Center for Health Statistics; about 20 percent of families in the United States have just one child. And a recent Gallup Poll indicates that's likely to continue.
"People are having smaller families and more children are growing up with fewer siblings," says Donna Bobbitt-Zeher, a sociologist at Ohio State University in Columbus. Part of it is economics; it's expensive to raise a child nowadays. Part of it is because women are marrying later and with that comes fertility issues. Adoption costs for those who can't have biological children have risen, as has the cost of raising children in general. Sometimes, a divorced dad with children from his first marriage marries again and only wants one child this time around. Part of it may be a new environmental consciousness; if you really want to lower your carbon footprint, forget about buying a Prius and think instead about having just one kid, says New York Times environment blogger Andrew Revkin.
And perhaps part of it is because women who have only children are happier than women who have more than one, according to research by Hans-Peter Kohler, sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. His study of 35,000 adult identical twins in Denmark indicated that the more children a mother had, the less happy she was. It didn't matter to the dads one way or the other (especially if the first child was a son).
Some parents worry about the "only child" issue, fearing they'll be raising a spoiled, overprotected, domineering, self-centered and ultimately lonely child. Of course, research has busted most of those stereotypes. Maybe what they might want to consider is -- what if the marriage doesn't last? Only children tend to have more intense relationships with their parents, which offers positives and negatives for all. But how that plays out during a divorce can be complicated.
Divorce is "more painful for the only child and her parents owing to the cohesiveness and the tight bond the parents and the child enjoyed with each other," according to the Only Child Project:
"Without a sibling to share the burden or ease his pangs, an only child's experience of divorce is significantly higher than other children. Being the pivotal point of both parents, the only child often gets embroiled in custodial issues and may be pointed out by the parents as being the sole cause for the continued interaction between the estranged spouses."
Sometimes the problems are exacerbated by gender. A daughter may believe that her mother understands her better and that she has more to offer than her father just as a son may feel closer to his father than his mother, says Dr. Carl Pickhardt, a psychologist in Austin, Texas, and author of "The Connected Father." It can result in a somewhat subtle type of discrimination that splinters the relationship. "Discrimination keeps the odd parent out from full participation in parental understanding and decision-making," he says. "And the odd parent out is treated as an outsider, excluded from the loop of information in which everyone else is often included."
If that happens, not only does the child feel the lack of a sibling and parent, but also a "loss of family."
And it's a frequent mother-daughter dynamic, New York magazine contributing editor Vanessa Grigoriadis observes. "I heard, in my interviews, many moms that called their daughters 'my beautiful little friend,' 'my best friend,' or even 'my little sister,'" she writes in an article, "The Onlies." "While only children and their moms were found to be more flexible in their understanding of typical sex roles, perhaps because the child was forced to satisfy both parents' desire for self-replacement, the mother-daughter relationship was especially fraught, subject to infinite analysis."
But as social psychologist and "The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide" author Susan Newman points out in an email exchange with me, "Divorce is not a topic children in general want to talk about even with siblings (although this is age dependent) or friends. If a divorce is bitter with a lot of push and pull of the child or children, it is logical that children with siblings will have each other to fend off parents' unreasonable actions or comments."
Only children often find sibling-substitutes -- a friend or a relative -- to be their confidante. And, she notes, "not all siblings offer emotional support; in fact, many siblings don't become close until they're older, young adults and beyond."
Dr. Toni Falbo, a professor of educational psychology at University of Texas at Austin who has been studying only children in the States and in China for decades, says it's not clear if divorce is any easier if there are siblings. "Often the parents had favorites, his and hers, and when the kids go to live with the unfavorite parent, they are extremely unhappy, feeling more abandoned than before," she says. "Or, if resources are tight, then siblings are competitors, in terms of custodial parents attention, money, love, etc. Consequently, few people experience divorce positively, but the one child-one parent may have an easier transition to normalcy than one parent families with many children, due to mother and child retaining more resources."
Still, when they were reading through essays they'd collected for their 2006 anthology, "Only Child: Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing Up Solo," Daphne Uviller and Deborah Siegel realized that whether the contributors liked being only children or not, there was a commonality -- a sense of longing. For contributor Ted Rose, who writes about how vulnerable and alone he felt after his parents' divorce, it was a need for an "intimate other."
Being an only child does make you different, say Uviller and Siegel, both only children themselves. "All of the milestones you hit in life seem, at least from the outside, different -- friendships, how you enter a relationship, the decision to have children. It is a different experience when your parents are dying," Uviller says.
So what is the future for the new generation of onlies? Oddly, it may not involve divorce at all since many only children are being born to single moms, many of them choice moms. And since a parent's behavior and style shapes a child more than whether or not there are siblings, says Newman, that may change everything.
"Children need -- and want -- structure; divorce breaks down what they have known," she says. "From that aspect, the only child of a single mother -- and yes, 41 percent of newborns are born to single women -- will not experience divorce, not have her world crater, and not experience the unhappiness that comes from breaking up a family."